“This is the place,” Irene said. She set down the basket heavily in front of me.
“Are you sure?” I said, looking around us. The wide riverbed spread out in front of us, large round river stones scattered like so many baby skulls tossed around by some careless giant to bleach white in the hot Texas sun. “This isn’t a place I would pick. I mean, look, there’s not even a pool deep enough to dip your feet into here. It was a lot more inviting back there.” I gestured back the way we had come.
Irene held her hand up and shielded her face from the sun, then gestured closer to the other shore. “Look over there.”
Small stacks of stones stood in several locations like tiny ziggurats, memorials to someone who had been here before. “Come on,” she said.
I sighed and followed.
We picked our way through the graveyard of white stones until we came to the stacks she had motioned at before. As we got closer, I saw that each of them was slightly different than the others. One had a small photo stuck under the top rock. Another had a piece of red cloth inserted between the stones. A third had a gold necklace lain on top.
“Look,” Irene said, pointing to one off to one side. “That’s your brother Harold’s watch, isn’t it?” A gold pocket watch lay opened on top of the large flat stone that stood there. I stepped closer and took a closer look. Inside was a photo of him and me as young boys. We sat on the front porch of our home in Oklahoma, before our father died, our arms clutched around each other, wide grins splitting our faces. For an instant, I was back in Oklahoma, back on the porch steps, back with Harold, ready to wrestle and race him to the corner store. And then I remembered where we were. I looked up.
Irene had opened up our basket and was drawing something out. It wasn’t what I expected.
“I thought you had brought us a picnic lunch,” I said. “What is that?”
She began to draw out personal items from the basket: some of them hers, some of them mine. Her ivory hair comb. My straight razor. Her silver brooch. My ruby tie pin. She looked up, somewhat embarrassed.
“I couldn’t decide what personal item to leave, so I thought we could choose here,” she said quietly. Her hands lingered on my tie pin. I frowned, confused.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “We haven’t discussed any of this. It’s not time for this. We have lots of time, plenty of time. We have obligations. We have people who depend on us.” I looked down the river, then back up where we had been just minutes before. “Why here? Why now?”
“This is the place,” she said. “This is where my parents crossed over. This is where Harold crossed over, and your cousin Sharon, and your mother and this is where I want to cross over too.” Her blue eyes looked sad, but I could see she had made her mind up as well. But I hadn’t. Not by a long shot.
“This is ridiculous,” I said. “Just because others crossed here doesn’t mean we have to. Look, why don’t we keep going. Let’s see what’s around the bend. It could be some wonderful surprise, just waiting for us.”
“Or it could be something terrible,” Irene said. She looked to the far shore, where the cottonwood trees leaned out over the water and provided dark shade. “I don’t know what’s over there. No one knows. But I know that many of the people that I love have already gone over there. They’re waiting for me over there.”
“Are they? What about the kids, and the grandkids? What about me?” I almost shouted. “I need you here.”
She smiled faintly, and held out her hand. “Come with me.”
The years fell away and I saw the girl that I had fallen in love with, the Irene who had talked me into skipping classes, who had introduced me to hard work and skinny dipping, sweat and tears and midnight passion. She had been the center of my universe for more than 50 years. I couldn’t imagine living my life without her. And now she was calling for me to choose between leaving her and leaving the life we were used to.
Her hand hung suspended, reaching out to me, as I failed to take it. I expected to see a light of disappointment in her eyes begin to shine. Instead, I simply saw a look of sad understanding. She smiled, and I loved her.
She turned back to the basket and put my items back in. Then she chose her own ivory hair comb, taking it out and closing the basket and setting it down beside her on the ground. She walked toward the stacks of rocks and the other shore and began to make her own stack, and I promptly began to help her collect rocks, the dutiful husband that I always was. She found a large white one to start with; I picked a flat grey one to put on top of that one. Each stone was large enough that it took two hands to lift it, but not so heavy that it took two people. When we had five of them, Irene gestured that it was time to stop.
“Do you remember when you bought me this comb?” she said quietly as she placed it on top of the pile of stones.
“No,” I responded, still somewhat dead inside to what was happening.
“I do,” she said. “I saw it in the window of a store and mentioned on a whim that I thought it was pretty and would like to have one like it, knowing that we couldn’t afford it. And you spent the next two weeks scraping together enough money to buy it for me.” She looked up, tears coming to her eyes. “It wasn’t even my birthday. You just bought it for me because I wanted it.”
I smiled, a lump coming to my throat. “I’d buy you the world if you asked for it. You know that.”
She stepped forward and put her arms around me. “I do know that. That’s why I never asked.”
We hugged each other for a long moment then, each one afraid to speak, each knowing what came next. I could hear the slow moving water behind her and could see the darkness of the shade that fell beneath the cottonwood trees. A hawk screamed overhead. Finally she pulled away.
“Maybe,” I started. “Maybe it’s cooler over there in the shade under the trees. It looks cooler. Maybe I should come with you.”
She smiled sadly. “No, you’re right. You’re not ready. Someone has to keep an eye on the kids. Take care of them, will you?”
I didn’t respond, but watched mutely as she pulled away and walked into the edge of the water. The shore was sandy there and it seemed to offer some relief to her. I watched as the water climbed to the her calves, past the edge of her skirt, to her waist, and then she was swimming. She pushed off from shore and her figure grew smaller as she got closer to the cottonwoods on the other side. I strained to watch her as long as I could and listen for her voice. Finally, I heard her one more time.
“Mother? Is that you?”
Then her dark shape joined the shadows that formed the darkness beneath the cottonwoods, and she was gone.
I looked down and saw that I clutched in my hand her ivory comb. I stared at it a long moment before turning to the stack of rocks and laying it on top of the red one we had chosen. The Texas sun still burned hot on my shoulders and I felt very tired and very old. But Irene was right. I wasn’t ready to join her yet. I pursed my mouth into a thin line and reached for the basket she had left on the ground nearby. Then I turned and walked back toward home.